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Sunchuli Pass

Life, everyday life, doesn’t provide the average person with a lot of space for contemplation. We spend our time working, tending to our family or our friends or our projects or our food or our drinks, we try to stay busy, and when we are not doing these things we sleep, and if possible we sleep the sleep of the dead in order to block out the existential mire that plagues our waking hours. We don’t necessarily want the time to think—it’s a messy, icky business and more often than not the results of contemplation are completely depressing. Because time and life and existence is bummer territory, feeling bad territory, what the fuck am I doing here anyway? territory. But try as we might we can’t avoid the conundrum forever, unless you’re a robot or a zealous ideologue, and if that’s the case the right thing for you to do is to go buy everything our sponsors sell, thanks.

At some point you contemplate your place in the world. You can’t help it, and despite all the signs pointing to the opposite, this stuff is good for you. This is that Building Character thing that our elders, woo-woo shamans, holy men and kick-ass grandparents praise so highly, the thing that makes you a you and not some Pink Floyd brick wall charlatan. These moments of clarity and definition can arise unexpectedly, they can take you by surprise as an exclamatory occurrence or they can seep into your psyche, past events that at the time seemed so inconsequential gradually find poignancy and perspective. This makes us who we are, creates us, shapes our essence. And as critical to the development of our character as they may be, these moments simply cannot be manufactured. There is no formula to character creation. However there exist a few known actions that can help culture a Character Building moment; an adventure, especially one fraught with known difficulties and unknown challenges, is one of them.

“In the throes of difficulty and the insecurity of the unknown we face mental and physical tests, the results of which will inform your future being-ness. It was on the road to Sunchuli Pass that one such moment happened for me.”

This was the highest point of our Bolivian trip. The pass was nearly 17,000 feet above sea level. It was blanketed in snow, and as we approached the crest of our passage thunder cracked like crashing bricks in the storm clouds that had settled like dark grey cotton comforters on the surrounding peaks. From this point forward we had two to three days of a riding/hiking/struggling to get through before arriving back at Charazani and our bus ride home. The road was steep but well maintained, and while we made continual, consistent progress, there was no way we were going to outrun the quickly rising storm that was chasing us up the hill from the Amazon. At this elevation11At 16700ft, the standard barometric pressure is 55 kPa (415 mmHg). This means that there is 55% of the oxygen available at sea level. we would get in 30 yards of riding (at best) before needing to take a break—that is if we were riding. At a certain point we were all walking.

“One foot after another, our bikes rolling crutches, as we made our way up the hill we had that sinking sensation that we were about to be pinched hard by weather on the roof of the world.”

Daniel had it the hardest. In retrospect it is hard to tell if he was suffering from a higher degree of altitude sickness or if his anxiety about altitude sickness was causing his body to behave as if he had altitude sickness, you know, “catch as catch can.” Either way he was suffering. We were all suffering. Most of the time we walked alone, at our own pace, gradually spreading out on the road. From time to time we would stop and regroup, check in, make a few jokes, try to get our breathing under control, and then start going again. It was during one of these regrouping moments that I mentioned to Daniel that there is so much time to think about everything, all there is in the world, yet I just keep thinking about Lucy. He says he just keeps thinking about Kieran and the Bears, and that this obsessive thought process is what fear is. “No,” I say “I think that’s what love is.” And we leave it at that. I want to be clear that this wasn’t one of those Imminent Death deals, an everything-is-in-peril moment, but we were suffering and the future, our health, our security, was definitely in question. And so because of this my consciousness defaulted to its most base, most important priority, and I gained insight and appreciation for my place in the world, what I meant to the world and what the world meant to me. Now if I were one of the enlightened beings of legend and lore I would be able to hold this moment in my mind and judge all other decisions against it. I’m not, I am a fallible petty spoiled punk who gets hung up on insignificant, inconsequential things, but at least now I have this experience, a small step forwards in my march towards a nirvana of some kind, towards transcendence and vibrational harmony and light. Or maybe I am just creating a higher, more sophisticated and nuanced sense of selfishness that allows me to travel through the world with less emotional burden. Whatever the result, there on that high mountain road where every step was a struggle, I caught a glimpse of something worthwhile.

Climbing to Sunchuli Pass

Waracha is a 5,419-metre high mountain in the Apolobamba mountain range in Bolivia. It is situated in the La Paz Department, Franz Tamayo Province, Pelechuco Municipality. There is a strong possibility that there is a llama ring circling that peak. Side note: Hilo Hilo is hiding just behind that tree. Who's a little hiiiiiidder?
Dry isn’t the same everywhere you go. True dry is warm clothing just out of a dryer, a fresh piece of paper, un-milked cereal. Leaving Hilo Hilo our bodies and gear were nowhere near "true dry." But that didn’t matter; compared to the saturation of previous days we felt like we had slept in sleeping bags made of desiccation packets and our socks felt like they had overnighted with Lawrence in the sandy seas of Arabia.
My cousin says that crop circles are plans for free energy transmitted to earth by Alien beings. Maybe these llama rings are celestial signs for ne plus ultra animal husbandry techniques. Anyone read Alien?
James rides across a bridge in the town of Piedra Grande, affectionately known as Peter Tosh. As luck would have it our wrong turn followed by Mountainside Bivouac #1 followed the short day into Hilo Hilo prevented us from spending the night in the soaking wet meadows of Peter Tosh. Instead we slept in a Mountaineering Luxury Hotel and we are all better for it.
Bucolic Pastorallia. From the front.
The moment this photograph was taken was a beautiful moment. There was laughter. The temperature was excellent. The sun was shining. And you could almost pretend the water in the creek spilling over the road in the middle ground was cool and refreshing, and potable. Almost. This moment-experience may be the most pleasant moment-experience any of us will have the entire time we are in Bolivia.
The boys, feeling my stoke.
Bucolic Pastorallia. From behind.

Sunchuli Pass

For the last two hours we’ve been looking over our shoulders, monitoring the swift and decisive advance of today’s Subtropical Alpine Monsoon Thunderstorm Hurricane Squall. For the longest time the SAMTHS had been well behind and below us, and but now it has us surrounded. It’s clear, in this moment, that we will not successfully get over Sunchuli before experiencing what promises to be, based on the thunder cracking and peeling down the rocky slopes surrounding us, and the lightning strobe effects, a pretty serious meteorological event.
We really really really really really really really really wanted this to be a good sign. In hindsight, looking back, it was, but the really really cold descent and subsequent climb back up to the next pass didn’t feel like a good sign, just more like a sign marking the passage of time in a march towards infinity.
It is definitely dead right? You don’t even need to waste a bullet.
Our future doing its best “Looking Bleak” impression.
James is wearing underwater diving gloves, we are caught in a mountain top blizzard, and breathing feels like an awkward new process that we have yet to get a handle on. Daniel is wobbling like a windup toy penguin. Why the fuck are we smiling? Maybe it's part of the learning-to-breathe process.

Mina Sunchuli

We had the option of camping in the “town” of Mina Sunchuli. It had its own cesspool of rust brown mining water, partially disassembled/partially shot wrecked vehicles, and a plethora of broken bottles littering its perimeter. Our other choice was to keep climbing up the road in hopes of finding a different place to sleep, one that didn’t appear to be seething with a palpable darkness.
Somebody is itching for a fight.
Dear Toyota (and fuel injection fanatics), you’re welcome.
The ol’ "new road vs. old road blurry 1970 Google image" debate rages on.

Mountainside Bivouac

It was getting late and we needed to camp because another storm was moving up the valley. Also, it was getting late. Also, we had already ridden over two passes, both of them over 16,000 feet. The problem was that we didn't want to camp too close to the road because there were mines everywhere, and mines featured, presumably, miners. And we still had an irrational fear of miners. So with that in mind we chose this spot to camp because there was low but sufficient rock wall blocking the direct view between our tents and this nondescript mining town. About an hour after making camp, well into our Mountain Houses, two miners walked past us on the road, whistling and smiling the whole time. Not only did they not kill us, they gave us invaluable information about tomorrow’s route without which we probably would have died. Irony, it’s called irony. Also, side note, Kyle talked to them for a bit and learned that they were just casually walking through the mist and the weather to the mine where we saw the 4-Runner. Addendum to the previous side note: about four hours later we heard them whistling and walking their way back home to this mining camp, as though they maybe had dinner with some buds, maybe played a few rounds then called it a night on account of the impending, and second, eight mile hike of the evening.
No James, this isn’t something that you can just wake up from.
This complete set (Socks, Bolivian Sneakers, Can of Peaches) is available from The Athletic. Ask for Jeremy.

Brief Histories: Mining

By Dillon Maxwell

Spanish Colonialism operated with 3 G’s in mind. God, Gold, and Glory. But gold, was not the only mineral the Spanish were after. Nor was it the only mineral available in South America. The continent is rich in tin, copper, silver, zinc, tungsten, and other precious metals. This made the landmass more desirable for the colonial exploits of the Spanish, and later other international entities seeking the same riches.

Soon after the Spanish conquest, mining operations began to spring up across the mountainous regions of South America. Bolivia, being extremely mountainous, became a mining hub. Silver and tin began to pour out of the region, funding Spain’s colonial efforts across the Western Hemisphere. Potosi, Bolivia became Spain’s silver mint. While the Spanish enjoyed the riches, the indigenous peoples of the region experienced hellish conditions. So many indigenous slaves were dying in the mines that the Spanish Crown decided to begin to import slaves from Africa to begin laboring in the mines.

In the 1860’s, after independence, tin extraction in Bolivia eventually brought the landlocked nation to the global forefront as a producer of the mineral. Control of the mines lay within the hands of the wealthy until 1952 when Nationalist Revolutionary Movement took power and nationalized the country’s largest mines. The product of this nationalization became the Bolivian Mining Corporation or COMIBOL for short. COMIBOL exists to this day, but mines are mostly run by small mining cooperatives or foreign entities.

Outside of the economic sphere, mining has played an important cultural role in Bolivia. One of the more interesting examples is that of El Tio a devious mining spirit that haunts the psyche of Bolivian minders. Spawned from a blend of Spanish Catholicism, folk religion, and harsh mining conditions El Tio is a devilish figure whose statues reside in the silver mines of Cero Rico, one of the largest silver operations in Bolivia. Miners leave alms of booze, porn, cigaretes, llama blood and other items of ill repute at El Tio’s feet. The tithes to El Tio are meant to appease him. If El Tio is pleased and accepts these offerings, he gives the miners safe passage through the earth as they work. If El Tio is denies them, or is neglected, the mines’ of Cerro Rico will “eat” the miners.

*Dillon Maxwell earned a BA in History from Colorado State University. He wrote his thesis on the Spanish Civil War's effects on the Cuban Revolution and did historical fieldwork in Southern Colorado focusing on famed American Explorer Zebulon Pike and the environment Pike encountered in his travels. Dillon lives in Fort Collins, Colorado where he spends his time riding bikes, camping, riffin', and playing drums.

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